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Florida voters crown McCain the GOP's front-runner

By WES ALLISON and JENNIFER LIBERTO, Times Staff Writers
Published January 30, 2008


On Tuesday, Florida Republicans listened to Roberta McCain: They held their noses and voted for her son. ¶ John McCain, the irascible U.S. senator and Vietnam War veteran who has clashed liberally with his party's base, edged Mitt Romney to win the Florida Republican primary, giving him the mantle of Republican front-runner and bathing him in a glow of national electability only a week before 21 other states make their picks for the GOP nominee.

"Our victory might not have reached landslide proportions, but it is sweet nonetheless," McCain told cheering supporters in Miami.

With 99 percent of precincts reporting, McCain had 36 percent of the vote to 31 percent for Romney, 15 percent for Rudy Giuliani and 13 percent for Mike Huckabee.

McCain's position at the top could be solidified as early as today by Giuliani, who delivered a farewell-sounding speech Tuesday night amid talk by Republican officials that he would throw his support behind McCain.

Among the Democrats, New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton met expectations and won easily, taking half the votes. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama got 33 percent of the votes, and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina won 14 percent.

"I am convinced that with this resounding vote, with the millions of Americans who will vote next Tuesday, we will send a clear message that America is back and we're going to take charge of our destiny again," Clinton told supporters at a hotel in Davie, in the Democratic stronghold of Broward County. On Tuesday, 22 states will make their picks for the Democratic nominee.

But the main event was the Republican primary, which lived up to its potential and helped clear the muddled field.

A weak showing by Giuliani, who had staked his campaign on winning Florida, means he won't be promoted beyond America's Mayor. The fourth-place finish by Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, showed he again was unable to broaden his appeal beyond his base of evangelical voters.

And Romney, a multimillionaire businessman and former Massachusetts governor, may have to dig deeper into his own pockets, but he can still compete vigorously on Super Tuesday next week.

"All you guys are family," he joked to supporters at the Mirror Lake Lyceum in St. Petersburg after conceding. "Don't expect to be part of the inheritance, I'm not sure there's going to be much left after this."

McCain, the Arizona senator, has now won three of the first six major contests. Florida is larger, more expensive and more politically diverse than any of the earlier states, and this was the first contest in which all the major candidates competed.

Just as important for McCain, who faces fierce resistance in some quarters of his party, he won a primary open only to Republican voters. His past two victories, in New Hampshire and South Carolina, came only with the help of independent voters.

The Romney campaign believed Florida's closed primary gave him an edge, and he put his emphasis on voter-rich suburban areas around the Tampa Bay, Orlando and Jacksonville areas. McCain, however, beat him in two of those three, losing only in Jacksonville.

Al Cardenas, a former state Republican Party chairman and a top Romney adviser, said the Romney campaign underestimated how badly Giuliani would run in South Florida. After most of the year at the top of the polls, particularly in South Florida, he dropped sharply in recent weeks, and his free fall sent voters to McCain.

That combined with the last-minute endorsement by Gov. Charlie Crist, a popular Republican, to give McCain the edge coming out of a final weekend of neck-and-neck polls.

McCain also won the backing of Sen. Mel Martinez and the other Cuban-American members of the state's congressional delegation, which helped him among the large, Republican-leaning Cuban community in South Florida.

"When Hispanics realized he (Giuliani) was no longer a contender, they started going to McCain," said Ana Navarro, a Nicaraguan-American political consultant in Miami and longtime McCain supporter. "Hispanics wanted their votes to matter."

At a hotel ballroom in Orlando, Giuliani told a subdued crowd that he was proud of the positive race he had run -a veiled reference to the recent sniping between McCain and Romney - and urged the Republican Party to broaden its reach.

"I'm even in the party - this is a big party," said Giuliani, who has liberal social policy views on abortion, among other issues.

The national stakes in Florida marked a vast change from past years, when the presidential nominees were typically chosen before the state voted. This year, Florida was determined to matter, and the state Legislature ignored warnings from both parties and moved the primary to a week earlier than the party rules allowed.

That set off a chain of events that may, in fact, eventually determine the nominees, at least for the Republicans.

The four approved early voting states - Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina - crammed their contests into the first three weeks of January to stay ahead of Florida, which set a frenetic campaign pace.

Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee docked Florida Republicans half their delegates; the Democratic National Committee yanked all the delegates from Florida Democrats and refused to assign them hotel rooms for the national convention in August in Denver.

What's more, Clinton, Obama and Edwards, fearful of a backlash in Iowa and the other early states, each signed a pledge promising not to campaign in Florida.

That sent the Democratic election to the minor leagues in terms of national interest and influence.

But Clinton's win Tuesday night gave her a welcome boost following the beating she took from Obama in South Carolina on Saturday, and she pledged to put Florida back in the win column for Democrats if she's the nominee.

"I could not come here to ask in person for your votes, but I am here to thank you for your votes today," Clinton told supporters gathered Tuesday night at a hotel in Davie, in the Democratic bastion of Broward County.

Unlike the Democratic campaign being played out far away, the Republican battle between Romney and McCain in Florida grew progressively uglier as the election neared. By Monday, each man was calling the other a "liberal."

In ads and appearances, Romney challenged McCain's conservatism and hit him for backing a Senate bill that would have given millions of illegal immigrants a route to legal status, a source of major contention for many Americans, particularly Republicans.

McCain questioned Romney's commitment to winning the war in Iraq and highlighted Romney's former support of abortion rights and universal health care.

McCain, 71, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War and the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told crowds he was most able to combat Islamic terrorists and keep American safe.

Through the static, however, the candidates did offer voters distinct messages. Romney, 60, a successful businessman, told voters that he was best equipped to manage the government and soothe the colicky economy - the No. 1 concern for Florida voters, exit polls found.

"You know that we're going on, and we're going to face Feb. 5," Romney's wife, Anne, said. "The conservatives are starting to rally around Mitt. This is just a sendoff point. This is not an end."

Times staff writers David Adams in Miami and David DeCamp in Orlando contributed to this report.